Informed about the dissipations and conjugal difficulties of his sister Marie-Antoinette, the emperor of Austria Joseph II decided to visit Versailles. He also came as an enlightened ruler, curious to get to know the kingdom of France.
The emperor had wished to come to France for many years. He was impatient to get to know Louis XVI, his brother-in-law, to gain his support for his own claims on Bavaria. He also wanted to discover Paris and Versailles. In 1777, the Austrian ambassador in Paris, Mercy-Argenteau, told him about the increasingly critical situation of Marie-Antoinette. The young woman was far from behaving as a responsible queen of France should.
Seven years after their wedding, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette had still not consummated their marriage. The queen had deserted the conjugal bed because the king, who suffered from phimosis, could not make love to her. She looked for distraction in entertainments and gambling. As her older brother who wished her well, Joseph II intended to remedy the situation and was encouraged in this by their mother, the empress Maria Theresa, who was worried about the situation.
The emperor arrived in Versailles on 19 April. Anxious to preserve his freedom of movement, he took the pseudonym of the Comte de Falkenstein and lodged in a modest inn in the town. Delighted to meet again this older brother whom she had not seen in seven years, Marie-Antoinette made her confession about her intimate life with Louis XVI. The emperor listened and gave her affectionate and reassuring advice. However, his brotherly love did not prevent him from being a close observer of his sister’s life, and nothing escaped his vigilance. As for Louis XVI, who started out cold and distant, Joseph II progressively earned his trust and in turn heard his secrets.
If Versailles was the place of confessions, Paris was the place of discoveries. The emperor wanted to see everything and know everybody. He became the idol of the capital for his simplicity. At Versailles, the atmosphere was less pleasant: on 9 May Joseph II finally scolded his sister and the tone soon improved. The emperor left Versailles on 30 May after he had handed Marie-Antoinette his “Reflections” on her duties as a wife and queen. He got her to promise to change her attitude to the king, whom he advised to have an operation. His visit bore its fruits: the marriage was consummated on 18 August 1777 and their first child was born the year after, in December 1778: Madame Royale. The emperor returned to Versailles in 1781, when Marie-Antoinette reserved for him the festivities of the Petit Trianon.